Ah, the good old days of the Internet: UNIX was king, text-based e-mail
and Usenet ruled the scene, and sending a GIF image involved a One-Two
punch of gzip and uuencode. This was a whole seven years ago. Mainframes
and other centralized computers were pass, and Client/Server was in full
Then suddenly the Internet became the center of the universe.
Regardless of the thrashing the dot-com's have taken on Wall Street in
the past few months, there is no question that the Internet has entwined
itself into the fabric of our business and private lives, and there should
be no doubt that as it evolves, it will have an even higher impact on our
societal ways. And, in case you haven't heard, the latest technology to
leverage the power of the Internet is Peer-to-Peer, or P2P for short.
For me, P2P is a reminder of the old peer-to-peer protocol that allowed
one computer to converse with another over two different networks. In
fact, one of my early projects at my first job out of college involved
just such a task. The product engineers who normally logged into our VAX
machine needed to access a bill of material database that resided on an
AS400 machine on a different network. One option was to provide each of
them with a 3270 terminal wired into the AS400 computer with separate
accounts. The other was to allow the VAX machine to converse with the
AS400 and download the requested bill of materials from the AS400 to the
VAX terminal of the engineer. Obviously the second approach was more
practical, and the solution was a network bridge between our DECNET and
SNA networks and reciprocal programs running on our VAX and AS400 systems
that handled the transmission and reception of data. While in this
scenario the AS400 was acting as the server and the VAX machine was acting
as the client, the roles could have been easily reversed, hence a peer to
For better or worse, the Internet has always followed a client/server
model. The servers include those such as Web servers, e-mail servers,
Usenet (NNTP) servers, and chat servers. And the clients are, well, us, or
more precisely, our programs that run on our PCs, Macs, or handheld
devices, such as Web browsers, e-mail programs, and news readers. There is
always a clear distinction between the servers and the clients. Servers
are the mightier machines with fault tolerant features, colorful UPS
systems, unlimited resources, and advanced operating systems that live in
glass houses of luxury, while the clients are the lonely, and sometimes
abused machines, living on the fringes. Welcome to the age of class
uprising, where the clients want equality with the servers under the call
of P2P, and where the lines between the clients and servers are blurred.
Many of us, at one time or another, have elevated our PCs to the status
of a server. Sharing a folder is one such example. But perhaps the one
application that brought P2P to the forefront is Napster. Legality issues
aside, Napster allows music fans to download music files from each other's
PCs. Each PC with a Napster installation is a client as well as a server.
Another example is a program that I use extensively when I develop
applications for our Web site: Microsoft's PWS (Personal Web Server). PWS
is a basic, low-end Web server with features near those of IIS (Internet
Information Server). PWS allows me to test and debug the newly developed
modules locally before uploading them to the server. In this way, my
computer becomes a client as well as a server.
Now imagine if everybody in the office installed a copy of PWS on their
PCs. All of a sudden we would have a P2P Web network where all PCs can be
servers as well as clients. Now translate that to all the computers
connected to the Internet, and suddenly you have a huge P2P network, what
some may even call a distributed network. Well, in a sense, such a network
is here already: It's called instant messaging. Now I know instant
messaging has been around for a while, but it took me a while to jump on
the bandwagon. Convergent services such as e-mail, voice chat, and
domestic toll-free calling are all offered to individuals to communicate.
Instant messaging products still need to register themselves with a
central server when they join the network, but after that initial contact
they can interact with each other without the server's interference. The
point is that through instant messaging products, computers are gaining
the advantage of P2P networking by becoming servers as well as clients.
Save for that initial contact, people can share files, chat, and exchange
anything digital without a server in the middle.
So what is going to take P2P to the next step? Three things:
- Instant messaging products must be able to interoperate.
- Increased bandwidth.
- A fully decentralized network where even the initial server contact
is rendered unnecessary.
As things look, all three items could be reality before long, leading
to the era of fully decentralized and distributed Internet. So what does
this mean to us? As crazy as it sounds, this means that we might all have
our own Web/e-mail/chat servers, our own telcos, and our own radio and TV
stations right in our PCs. What do you think of the P2P revolution? Let me
know by browsing to my very computer that I use everyday at:
Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality
each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the
position of director for TMCnet.com -- your online resource for CTI,
Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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